NI21 leader Basil McCrea has defended the purchase of over £10,000-worth of high-tech equipment in just five months using public money.
Mr McCrea’s shopping spree was revealed in the latest register of MLAs’ expenses claims, which were recently published on the Assembly website.
He said the purchases help him “communicate with the electorate”.
The Lagan Valley MLA bought, among other items, an Apple Macbook laptop for £1,998, two top-of-the-range iPhones, costing between £600 and £700 each, an Apple display screen for £968 and video editing software costing £174.
The claims were made over a five month period between January and May of this year.
The claims were included in Mr McCrea’s office expenses; a funding stream for MLAs to provide a service to their constituents.
Two weeks ago, the News Letter revealed that NI21 had used a little-known Stormont funding scheme (the Financial Assistance for Political Parties programme) to claim thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money for video equipment.
In April the party’s claims included £1,780 for a camcorder, £1,188 for an iMac, £212 for a tripod, £243 for a microphone, £93 for “lighting equipment” and £656 for “accessories” bought from Creative Video Productions.
In total, the party and its sole MLA claimed more than £10,000 in the first five months of the year on high-end technical equipment (Mr McCrea also claimed £270 to pay an accountant to do his tax return, and 20p for a plastic bag).
When asked about the claims, Mr McCrea told the News Letter that he produces a “significant amount of output on social media, including the production of videos, periscopes [a type of internet broadcasting clip] and audio”.
When asked if he thought that was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money, McCrea said: “It is my job to communicate to the electorate and I go through a media that people listen to, that is social media.”
Financial guidance for MLAs states that any equipment purchased is “only to be used to assist a member in performing his/her Assembly duties and must not be used by family members or for party political activities”.
Stormont has confirmed that items bought by MLAs from office expenses remain the property of the MLA.
That means that MLAs can keep items such as TVs, computers and printers even if they resign, or are not re-elected.
An Assembly spokeswoman said that MLAs can buy items through their office expenses which “remain property of MLAs” and, as such, are not returned to the Stormont Assembly.
Mr McCrea did not directly respond when asked what would happen to the equipment he bought, if was not re-elected next May.
Instead, he said: “I think you have got enough for your story on the equipment.
“It is used extensively for social media and if you look at the Facebook pages, you look at the Twitter comments, you look at the YouTube, this is the modern way of communicating with people.”
OVER £8M IN EXPENSES:
In the last financial year, the 108 MLAs at the Assembly had expense claims totalling more than £8m combined to cover the costs of running constituency offices, mileage claims and staff salaries.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan claimed almost £100,000, the highest total expenses of any member. Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin, who is also a Sinn Fein MLA, had the second highest claims at £92,560.25.
A number of MLAs who during 2014/15 also sat in Westminster as MPs had the lowest expenses claims.
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell, no longer an MLA, claimed the lowest: £8,755.
Of MLAs who have served the full year at the Assembly, Alistair Ross of the DUP claimed the smallest amount: £60,998.12.